Size does matter...

The bus ride to Macedonia was quite spectacular, twisting along windy roads through hilly terrain. Hours later we arrived in Skopje. While Sofia (in Bulgaria) could be best described as grungy, it still felt somewhat relaxed and friendly. However, Skopje bus station, a giant concrete leviathan nestled between the columns of the railway station above had a far less inviting feel to it. Within about 15 seconds of stepping off the bus, we had taxi drivers hounding us, which was not that unusual, and a couple of Roma Gypsy kids - probably no older than 6 or 7 - coming up to us asking for money. One even had the audacity to try and grab Jess’ drink out of her hand. This was our first direct contact with the Roma, and it was not a good start.

We decided to take a taxi to our hostel despite being paranoid about getting ripped off, and in the end, I think the price we agreed with the driver beforehand was actually in our favour, judging by his demeanour upon our arrival. We were warmly greeted and welcomed inside as we walked in the gate by one of the staff members. This helped to ease our nerves a bit after our initial arrival. After the usual paperwork, we dumped our stuff and grabbed a couple of things from the local bakery for dinner, as there were no nearby restaurants. I was going to grab a beer to have with dinner, but unfortunately, they don’t sell alcohol after 10pm. After the incredibly relaxed attitude to alcohol in Bulgaria, I was somewhat disappointed, but my liver was probably relieved.

We chatted with our fellow room mates, a couple that were on a quick weekend break from studying in Bulgaria, as we munched our mystery pastries and finally retired to bed. I think that one of them must have been deathly afraid of heights, as in the small hours of the morning they were both in the bottom bunk, and rocking back and forth somewhat violently, in what I can only assume to be fear. Poor things.

The next day we headed out into the centre of town, and were surprised by the contrast to what we had already seen of the city. Instead of somewhat rundown blocks of apartments and scary bus stations, we had enormous marble statues and elaborate fountains, as well as an archway reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe. Venturing further, we were confronted with an enormous public square, and on the far side of the river were romanesque buildings of crisp white stone. Bridges adorned with elaborate statues crossed the void, which was also inhabited by impossibly large “pirate ship” looking structures on the rivers pebblestone banks.

Not actually paris...
To me, his expression says "Yeah, that's right. I'm a lion. Deal with it."

The somewhat odd thing about all of these elaborate decorations, however, is that most of them are no more than five years old. Everything was built at rather great expense, not to mention the frustration and anger of some of the Macedonian people, in an attempt to bring more tourists to the capital. According to some I spoke to, it is actually working. However, I’m personally not sure that the money invested will ever be reclaimed. Some estimates put the amount of money spent as high as 500 million euro. Personally, I find the result to be somewhat tacky, as although the pieces themselves are all quite well built, they are all crammed into such a small space with little coherence, not allowing any one statue, fountain or building to stand out on it’s own. It is especially apparent that little thought was given to placement, as in the middle of all of this is the Stone Bridge from the Ottoman era that now looks somewhat out of place.

The stone bridge.
It pisses me off more than you can imagine that the bridge DOESN'T LINE UP WITH THE BLOODY BUILDING.

That day and the next sort of blend into one. We visited the archeology museum, which was only recently built, and was one of those out of place white stone buildings I mentioned earlier. Within were thousands of artefacts that had been found in the region, spanning many centuries. Additionally, and sometimes unnervingly, were wax figures dressed in period attire, usually hidden around a corner in such a way as to startle you. Although the objects within the museum were quite interesting, like the square outside, it suffered a bit from overload and lack of organisation. You can only look at so many stone pots and vases before the meaning starts to dissolve away.

We also met a racist dog. We called him Benji. While there are many stray dogs in Skopje, most are fairly aloof and will keep their distance. Sitting down and eating our lunch one day, this little mutt comes sauntering up to us and sits down. After we had finished, and threw a couple of morsels his way, we gave him a pat and went on our merry way. However, the next day, sitting in the same spot, he comes up to us again. We give him a pat, and as we are sitting there, a couple of Roma kids head into the adjacent convenience store, only to be promptly ejected from the premises by the shop keeper. They see us, and start heading over, presumably to ask for money. Benji jumps up, quick as a flash, and starts growling and barking at these two kids, who have stopped dead in their tracks, and are now holding onto each other with fear. We call Benji back, worried about what he might do, and he quickly trots back to us in a way that almost said “see what I did? I showed them”. The kids skittered away, while we sat there dumbfounded and confirmed with each other that the previous incident actually occurred. Benji just sat back down next to us.

On our second last day in Skopje, we decided to head up the mountain that overlooks the city to visit the millennium cross. This is a huge crucifix that is visible from just about anywhere in the city, and there is a cablecar from a carpark situated 3/4 of the way up, which was a quick and simple bus ride away. At least, thats what it was supposed to be. We headed to the bus station, and finally figured out that the small, unmarked booth off to the side of the bays was where one buys tickets. We had just missed one of the hourly busses, but decided to wait anyway, and I bought a coffee from one of the nearby machines.

Tangent warning. In Skopje, there was a greater concentration of coffee vending machines than I have seen in my life. You could be practically anywhere, and turn 360 degrees and you would have a very good chance of seeing at least one. For a long time I have had a minor fixation with cheap coffee from machines. I’m not entirely sure why. The first example that I can recall was from my days in TAFE, where I would wait for a lift home after one of my later classes, and buy a 70¢ coffee from the machine in the lobby. In Skopje, the price of a “cappuccino” was around 30-40¢ from most machines, and being so cheap, it became something of a hobby to try a coffee from different machines we went past. Some of them were ancient, some were dirty, but I didn’t care. When I took that first sip I felt a strange and inexplicable satisfaction.

Anyway, back to the bus. So we were waiting and waiting for this bus, which we thought had arrived an hour and a half later, but although it was marked “Millennium Cross”, the driver pulled away after ejecting all of his passengers. This was even after I had a conversation with him; he spoke Macedonian, I spoke English, and we both tried to speak with hand gestures. He made a square in the air at one point, and to this day I don’t know what it represented.

Finally, over two hours after we bought our tickets, we got on the bus and travelled up the windy road to the carpark. We wandered over to the bottom of the cable car track, and were confronted with a barrier blocking our entry. It turns out that on the last Tuesday of every month, the cable car does not run. Ugh. So we did the only thing we could do, and waited for the bus to head back down the hill 45 minutes later. We met a few others who were also oblivious to this seemingly arbitrary closure, including a group of blokes who had walked up the hill instead of catching the bus. What a waste of a day.

Taken through the grotty window of the bus on the way down.

The following day we left for Ohrid, a small lakeside town. From the moment we stepped off the Bus, it felt like we had found the Macedonia we had been looking for. The town had a very mediterranean feel to it, and the lakeside part of town, while slightly touristy, was very pleasant to walk around in, or stop and get a coffee or a beer. This is what we spent a lot of our time doing, as the weather was starting to get very warm.

We did however head up one of the surrounding hills to the fortress, which provided spectacular views of the town. It was incredibly hot and tiring, but even with the ridiculous heat, I still had to try a coffee from the machine at the entrance.

On one of the last days, we went to a Monastery close to the Albanian border on the south side of the lake. There was not much to do here except for soak in the atmosphere and have a beer, or explore some of the numerous chapels in the area. One of the notable ones was no more than 400 meters from the Albanian border, and had a small spring built into the floor.

Look Closely...

The following day we headed to Struga - a town only a few kilometres from Ohrid - but only because that is where we needed to catch the bus to Tirana from. Originally, we were going to go to Greece from Macedonia, but due to the fact that Greece was on the verge of financial collapse, with banks closed and ATMs quickly running out of money, we decided to err on the side of caution and come back to it at a later time when things have settled down.

We left Macedonia realising that we needed to make more of an effort to get out of the capital cities. The contrast between Skopje and Ohrid was incredible, and we enjoyed ourselves far more in the latter location. Big cities are stressful places, and this is far more obvious if you are an outsider. While we still plan on spending time in the capital of most of the countries we will visit, we are going to make much more of an effort to get out of them. Unfortunately, on our next stop, Tirana, we were unable to do this, but that is for the next entry. Until then, thank you for showing an interest and following the blog!

— Thomas 2015.07.21

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